One of the curiosities of Dale Steyn’s magnificent career is that his Test record against England is comfortably the worst – albeit that’s a relative term – of the opposition he has faced. Ahead of this series he has promised to set about correcting those returns and he took his first opportunity with considerable success after England had been put into bat on a muggy, damp Durban day where play was frequently interrupted.
Steyn had not bowled competitively since November 5 when he sustained a groin injury in India, but it took him just 11 deliveries to make a crucial mark on the Boxing Day Test when he removed Alastair Cook without scoring. That came during a morning session restricted to 6.1 overs by rain and the threat if lightning, then when play resumed it took him four more deliveries to lure debutant Alex Hales into driving away from his body.
It was a demanding situation for Nick Compton to resume his Test career at No. 3, but by tea he had reached a sturdily compiled 40 and the fourth-wicket stand with James Taylor was worth a reassuring 72. There are just 15 Test caps between Hales, Compton and Taylor and to see two of the trio combining in a restorative stand of some authority will have been especially heartening for the England dressing room
Joe Root had again looked in sparkling form but fell, given conditions, in a somewhat unexpected manner when, in the 19th over of the innings, offspinner Dane Piedt – who had been preferred ahead of a fourth quick in Kagiso Rabada – made his first delivery grip and spin into Root who was playing off the back foot and was trapped lbw.
At the toss, Hashim Amla had said Piedt’s selection was very much with conditions later in the match under consideration. With just three frontline quicks to rotate his first-innings role will also be important and shifting one of the recent world No. 1 batsmen was a considerable way to begin. However, seeing Piedt and Stiaan van Zyl’s gentle medium pace in partnership before tea did highlight the dilemma Amla has with his specialist quick resources. By the break, Steyn had bowled nine of the 40 overs and spent some time off the field.
Play was delayed for half an hour by morning drizzle which followed significant overnight rain in Durban. Cook, with four quicks at his disposal although not the injured James Anderson, would likely have bowled first as well but it was England’s new-look top order that was handed the initial challenge under moody skies. The local knowledge at Kingsmead is that looking up is as important as looking down.
One of the pre-series talking points has been how ready Steyn would be for his Test return. He could not squeeze in any cricket before the series and has previously started series slowly after lay-offs. However, it was only a matter of minutes before his veins were close to popping and his scary-eyes were wide.
He probed outside Cook’s off stump with the England captain initially showing good judgement before being drawn into pushing at one angled across him that nipped away with the edge carrying comfortably to Dean Elgar at second slip. There are numerous key head-to-heads in this series and Steyn had claimed the first honours in his with Cook, for whom this was his first Test duck since facing Australia, at Perth, in late 2013.
The early wicket meant that England’s new-look top three had lost their figurehead, leaving Hales and the Compton to try and repel South Africa in challenging conditions. Hales had managed to settle his nerves when he was off the mark first delivery he faced in Test cricket as he clipped Kyle Abbott through square leg and was largely secure during the half an hour of play before play was suspended
Compton, returning to the Test side for the first time since mid-2013 and in the city of his birth, had a nervy start when he edged Steyn short of first slip, the ball dying in front of van Zyl and it was a chance that AB de Villiers may consider he could have dived for.
Rumbles of thunder followed by rain sent the players from the field and shortly after the resumption Hales was rumbled when he was drawn into playing a delivery he should have left. Many a batsman has done that against Steyn. Root, as ever, began with a positive intent, played a classy back-foot drive against Morne Morkel then pulling Abbott into the stand at deep midwicket only to fall to Piedt’s first delivery, which turned significantly. Root called for a review but both the point of impact and the ball hitting the stumps were umpire’s call.
A short while later rain briefly returned – another chance for South Africa’s quicks to refresh – but this time England did not falter. Both Taylor and Compton produced confident cover drives, showing a keenness to get forward whenever possible, while Taylor also took two boundaries off Piedt’s comeback over and then cracked another brace off the same bowler as the tea interval approached, expertly picking the length from the offspinner, as the mood shifted a little England’s way for the first time.